Same ol’ tune?

By now, we here crew and researchers of the Amundsen, have mostly learned to roll with whatever unplanned (but almost expected?) curves are thrown into our meticulously drawn up plans. I expect that those of you who bother to follow these updates are learning this as well, so it is probably no surprise to hear that this is being written during hour 3 (4? 5?) of sitting in the side-chamber like room at the Iqaluit airport which seems to be traditionally reserved for the terminal’s air traffic controllers. The weather conditions in Resolute Bay, where the Amundsen is currently waiting for us, can only be described as ‘really not good’. The first words from the three people I met at the airport at 4:30 this morning, after an initial handshake, were, “have you seen the forecast for up there today?” Blizzard + 50 to 80 kmh winds gusting to 110 + periods of freezing rain + a southern wind building giant waves = no helicopter, no barge, and perhaps even no landing our plane. Thus, we wait it out in the south. Side note: I can now say that I’ve eaten Arctic shawarma because of this layover.

We’ve kept busy back in Ottawa with our preparations for this next tour of Arctic Canada since our ‘surprise’ field season when we went offshore Newfoundland and Labrador earlier this year. I’m joining 40 crew members, and a smattering of scientists, who will be on board for the full 5 week tour of Baffin Bay, the Labrador Sea and St. Lawrence River. Others will come and go as we stop in Pond Inlet and Iqaluit, NU on the way. About a dozen high school students from across the country are also joining us for a trip which all of their friends back home are going to be mega-jealous.

Our team is very appreciative of the large amount of time which has been allocated to ice island field work during this leg of the science cruise. If all goes to plan (and we know how well that usually goes), we will re-survey a small fragment of the ice island which we worked on in 2014. The beacon which we deployed to track the ice island’s drift since then is showing a location right in the vicinity of the ship’s planned track. However, if there is still a piece of ice associated with the beacon remains yet to be confirmed. Otherwise, we’ll look to do a similar thickness profile and photo-survey for 3D modeling on a new ice island. We’re also hoping to use the ship’s sonar to map the seafloor in a region where numerous ice islands have beached themselves, in the hopes of finding some significant scour marks.

The big work, which we would love all of your positive thoughts to be directed to, will take place in mid-October as we steam down the east coast of Baffin Island. There are a number of ice islands grounded along the coast, ranging from <1 km2 to >14 km2. All of the preparations I mentioned above will go toward two equipment installations on the chosen ice island (i.e., the one we reach when the sun is shining). We’re planning on setting up a prototype ice penetrating radar which will take daily ice thickness measurements for us to monitor the ice island’s thinning. The second system is a small weather station which will record, among other things, surface melt. We’ll use this (with the thickness) to determine the mass balance (thinning magnitude, with the top and bottom surface contributions known). The weather station is also decked out with a camera, which keeps an eye on the radar system, GPS, air and ice temperature sensors and a modem/antenna for transmitting all this data back to an email inbox. Because if we happen to lose the equipment to Neptune, we may as well have some data for all of this effort!


There was a lot cables and metal posts on my back porch for a few weeks!

radar boxes on some Loeb Building 'lawn'

radar boxes on some Loeb Building ‘lawn’



Thanks for reading, catch you somewhere near Greenland..

Over and out.



And that`s a wrap!

Well, that’s a wrap. Usually on the Amundsen I have some solid downtime to write trip updates as we go, since the ice island work is pretty spread out. That wasn’t the case this time around. The iceberg mapping team had no shortage of work over the past 3 weeks. It seemed that we were constantly in the right place at the right time. We may have also benefited from the fact that environmental conditions (i.e., no quality sea ice) were unfavourable for others` work on the ship – thus giving us more surveying days (sorry Kerri and Lauren!).


The ice was alright for these guys. Credit: Sylvain

We worked on 6 icebergs in total. Weather and sea ice conditions made it impossible to complete a ‘full’ survey of any one iceberg, but I am ecstatic by the amount of work which was accomplished. A full day would have included photo surveying from the helicopter and using the barge for laser scanning (for the icebergs’ above-water face) and multibeam sonar surveying (under-water portion) as well as oceanographic sampling to collect data for iceberg drift analysis. Some weather condition on any given day would confound things – either we wouldn’t be able to get high enough with the helicopter due to low cloud ceilings or there would be too much (‘non-quality’) sea ice for the barge to be deployed. On those days when the latter was the case we’d still conduct the laser scanning from the barge – just while the barge was still sitting on the Amundsen’s deck! The team from Laval who ran the multibeam were instrumental in helping us with this, since operations with the helicopter and the ship were often overlapping. Unfortunately, their underwater surveying was what was cancelled out in this situation, as you really do need to have the barge in the water for that to occur!

long tabular berg B&W

One of our iceberg sites. Credit: G. McCullough.

Our photo rig

Our photo rig

Sixteen beacons/GPS units were deployed on the six icebergs. These will be used for drift modeling but a German student on board, as well as us to help correct for the icebergs’ drift while we were surveying them. Photogrammetry surveys were conducted on five of the bergs. We tried to repeatedly survey the same pieces so that I can determine how precise (how close we get to the same answer) our future 3D models are. This will give us our model error, which I’ll then use to say that we could detect deterioration above this minimal level. The same goes for the laser scanning surveys, which we conducted on four of the icebergs.

Just another day at work. Credit: G. McCullough

Right now we are heavy into the data processing side of things. The correction for iceberg drift and rotation during surveying is proving to be a tricky puzzle. We’re working out our correction method on a sample dataset which we took from a survey of the Amundsen itself. Once this is figured out, I’ll work on the 3D model comparisons that are mentioned above, and we’ll also work with the Laval team to integrate their underwater iceberg survey so that we can demonstrate our ability to produce a full 3D map of an iceberg. And from that… potentially ask for further funding to conduct a dedicated iceberg/ice island study to use these tested methods to actually study deterioration over a longer period of time.


Look ma, data! (that being the partial side and top of an iceberg)

But actually, right now were are transiting home on the St. Lawrence. We all took a break from our computer screens yesterday to enjoy a traditional end-of-cruise BBQ on the helicopter deck. Today we are hoping to see some whales and other wildlife as we pass through the Sagueney .  Then tomorrow, we’re back in port!

The scenic shot. Credit:

The scenic shot. Credit: G. McCullough

And with that, I’ll be signing off for the summer as the next field adventures aren’t scheduled until October.

Have a great spring and summer everyone!


Field season came early!

Greetings from Newfoundland and Labrador! We are back on the CCGS Amundsen and are currently located between the Flemish Pass and the southern Labrador Sea. The ship is steaming north into the sea ice, or what is left of it.

Before I lay out the background on this trip and what we’ve been up to for the past 10 days, I should finish up the final week or two of the Svalbard trip. The skies continued to lighten while we were there, but unfortunately the sun failed to show through the cloud on the day of the Sun Festival. This is when the entire community comes out to the old hospital steps and waits for the first moment when the sun could possible shine above the mountains towering over the town of Longyearbyen. There is a 15 year streak of this occurring, but no one seemed discouraged at the gathering afterwards where we all dug into ‘sun’ donuts and waffles with caramel (!) cheese. The last weeks were also filled with skis up glaciers, an epic snowmobile expedition to a tidewater glacier named Paulabreen, a final exam and a short holiday in Oslo.

Skiing down Longyearbreen (breen = glacier)

Studying by candlelight

Studying by candlelight

The sun doing it`s best to peak out behind the mountains and clouds

The sun doing it`s best to peak out behind the mountains and clouds

Then it was back to Ottawa to prepare (with haste) for the field campaign which Derek (my graduate studies supervisor) and I are on now. Though we knew that this trip was in the works since December, nothing had been finalized before I left for Svalbard – which meant that none of our preparations had been either. The three week turn-around between Svalbard and Quebec City for the Amundsen’s mobilization worked out in the end and a Dodge Caravan filled with aluminum plates, metal storage cases, 10 ft metal beams and 150 kg of pea gravel (you’ll see…) wheeled into the Coast Guard docks in Quebec City on April 12. We spent the following days setting up our lab, and most importantly, setting up one of the major components of our iceberg mapping experiment.

The reason d’etre of Derek and I for these weeks is to test methods for mapping the above-water portions (or ‘sails’) of icebergs. Though our lab group mainly focuses on ice islands further north in the Canadian Arctic, this Amundsen cruise (dedicated to iceberg and sea ice study) was a perfect opportunity for us to develop these methods for future use on ice islands.

These methods include photogrammetry and laser scanning surveys of the iceberg’s sails. Photogrammetry (and specifically something called Structure from Motion) is essentially conducted with a series of overlapping aerial photos which sophisticated software stitches together to ultimately produce a 3D model of a target. However, a drifting target of ice makes this difficult. Distinct features can be hard to come by on a chunk of ice and we have to account for the movement which the iceberg underwent during the surveying. So, before we can do the photo-survey helicopter flight we have to use the helicopter for transport to the iceberg and deploy a series of ground control points (these are man-made features for the software to identify) and GPS units (for post-correction of the iceberg drift, and to give scale to the final model).

The ground control points (bottom-up). 10 kg of pea gravel are inserted around the perimeter to weigh it down. It was successful in not budging after being deployed on the ice!

The ground control points (bottom-up). 10 kg of pea gravel are inserted around the perimeter to weigh it down. It was successful in not budging after being deployed on the ice!

The GPS placement is also important for the second method that we are testing – the laser scanning. This is done from the small barge which can be deployed from the Amundsen and was the method which which Derek and I had the least experience.  We had some help in the set-up and calibration of the instruments while in Quebec City, where we strapped the set-up (those aluminum plates and beams) and the laser scanner, two GPS units and something called an inertial monitoring unit (to account for the barge movement) on-top of the Dodge and drove around the Coast Guard docks. We certainly had everyone’s full attention with our get-up, and after some modifications to mount the survey-frame safely on the barge’s cabin, we were set to go. The plan is to circumnavigate an iceberg three times with the laser scanner to produce three separate models of the sail. An added plus is that there is another group on board with the equipment (a multibeam sonar) to map the underwater portion of the icebergs, coincident with our work. So we should have three models of an entire iceberg by the end of the trip.

The Caravan ready to go survey

The Caravan ready to go survey

Three surveys are also to be completed during the photo surveying. The idea of both the laser scanning and photogrammetry is to compare the three models produced by the single method to assess how precisely each method can produce a model. The variability between models can then be used to determine what magnitude of deterioration you could theoretically detect if you were able to survey a target over a longer period of time.

A lot hinges on the use of the helicopter. The GPS placement is necessary to account for drift during laser scanning as well as photo surveying. And of course this is always complicated by flying conditions. During our first big day of surveying yesterday we had to work in bursts during brief windows of adequate flying conditions. I have never had to consider the proper conditions for the barge in previous years but am now learning that there are a number of considerations on this front as well. It cannot be deployed when the sea ice concentration is too high, or when the sea state is too great. Getting back on the barge reminds me of my first trip in 2011 on the ship when I helped the team working the AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle) from the barge. My first day out I got so sea sick that sprawled out in the small red shelter that they have onboard. Remembering this makes me understand at least one of the reasons for only operating the little vessel such as this when the waves and swell are of a permissible size!

The sea ice concentration issue came up yesterday during our first day of surveying. However, we adjusted – we still did the laser scanning, just with the barge still on-board the Amundsen’s deck! It was an interesting day, and quintessentially Amundsen. We planned our perfect survey day weeks ago. This would be 10 hours of activities in a pre-determined sequence, but we all know by now that those plans go out the window in no time on this ship and you do what you can to adjust. It is really nice to report that we already have solid data from yesterday’s work – GPS units were put out and three surveys from both the helicopter, and docked barge, were conducted.

The final element of our project is oceanographic data collection for a collaborator’s research on iceberg drift modeling. This does hinge on getting the barge in the water, which we hope to do today. First though, we have to locate an iceberg that was identified on some satellite imagery yesterday. This is proving difficult in 15 m visibility!

A major reason why yesterday was such a success is that Derek and I were given 3 opportunities to test our external camera mount (‘the Pod’) on the helicopter, and the wireless control for operating the camera, in the first few days of the trip. We also got out on the barge and tested the laser scanning on the Amundsen itself. This really helped our confidence and allowed us to hone our methods for the few days of true surveying which we are given. One modification included the replacement of plexi-glass like material for The Pod, which had me scouring the industrial section of St. John’s while we were in-port.

East Coast Trail break

East Coast Trail break


I think it is safe to leave it at that for now. Cross your fingers for clear skis and calm seas (seems like we just keep asking for more and more!).


Next up: pictures from yesterday! I just need to raid another computer’s files for those!

Catching the rays

Two weeks and a number of experiences later…

We are all amazed that we have been on Svalbard for close to a month. Since the last entry we’ve been vaulted through a week each of lectures on glacial dynamics and remote-sensing techniques and taken excursions to two local glaciers to test equipment and learn of their unique histories.

View into town from Longyearbyen

View into town from the glacier Longyearbyen 

Ice penetrating radar – which must have come up in a previous entry – is used for glacial profiling and we took a half-day excursion to the local glacier, Longyearbyen, to test out the university’s equipment. When we use radar for ice islands we are mostly concerned about determining their thickness. This is true for glaciologists as well, however, they also tend to experiment with their antenna frequency to hone-in on stratification within the ice. This can give hints to the locations of boundaries between cold and temperate ice, debris layers and melt water channels or englacial lakes. Detecting these features is useful in constructing a theory on the glacier’s past, and possibly it’s future. The university has sourced some amazing equipment for this. Their radar uses fiber optic connections and is tough enough to withstand snowmobile speeds. Plans are brewing to improve the slow towing of two sets of skis on the ice islands!

The radar set up

The radar set up

A small group revisited the glacier over the weekend for a relaxed ski on a beautiful day. I was impressed at the Fischers, as well as my shins, for holding up well on the descent!

Mine relics

Mine relics

Starting off

Starting off

The place to be!

The place to be!

Svalbard Selfie

Svalbard Selfie

Coming down

Coming down

The 'toothpick' skis

The ‘toothpick’ skis

I spent the last week learning about various techniques to detect changes in the cryosphere (glaciers, sea ice, ice shelves, ice sheets, etc.) with spaceborne sensors. I’m hoping to determine a way to detect the change in an ice island’s thickness with satellite collected data, so this week was especially pertinent for what’s to come with the research to be conducted back in Ottawa.

We did get to venture out on a stunning day to Tunabreen, a glacier ending at the water (now covered with sea ice). It was a good 2 hour skidoo ride out along two fjords and we were graced with the presence of caribou, at least 1 seal, and sun beams (!!!). Tunabreen is a glacier that has been slowly retreating – which evidence seen in the local seabed from its annual push mounds (due to slight advancements before further retreat). It calves regularly when the ocean warms over the summer, but we also saw some fresh rubble from a recent calving.

Tan anyone?

Tan anyone?





The wall

The wall


The sun is set to shine on Longyearbyen proper tomorrow – given that the clouds cooperate. We are set to go to a little festival to greet it tomorrow. That, on top of a trip to another ice cave today in yet another local glacier more-or-less out my backdoor, makes for a solid weekend!

Enjoy your own weekends, wherever you find yourself!

Down we go!

Down we go!


Hello from 78°N – the northernmost blog post so far.  Here in Svalbard is the northernmost everything: chocolatier, swimming pool, university… The latter is why I’m up here and get to write about a non-traditional field work experience. Longyearbyen – the town on Svalbard (a Norwegian archipelago UP there) which I’m in – hosts the University of Svalbard where a few hundred students at a time take practical Arctic science, technology and logistics courses. It is a gorgeous facility. Everything here is gorgeous. The buildings, the scenery, a hot cup of tea after your chilly walk home at night…


The university straight ahead, complete with a picturesque backdrop.

We’re a week and a half into our glaciology course, though I left home two weeks ago due to a loooong 36 hr journey over here. It may take a full day and a half, but a round trip flight can be one third of the price of flying to a town in the central Canadian Arctic (that still gets me). The first few days were filled with our practical trainings – including how to properly balance a sledge when loading up for a snowmobile trek, how to drive said snowmobile (both up and perpendicular to slopes – that was fun!), how to properly take care of someone in the event of hypothermia and how to shoot rifles and flare guns in case of a close polar bear encounter. We think that the trembles caused by the chill may have been useful for mimicking the shakes we’d certainly have if that encounter was to ever happen!


Logistics warehouse, minus the 28 brand new ‘snowscooters’ (makes them sound so quaint!)

That weekend was more than exciting as we were hit with a full gale on Sunday. The kilometer trek to the gym was a workout in itself for the three brave, dedicated soles who ventured there. Unfortunately the front brought in a bout of warm weather, including rain. This re-configured the town into a skating rink, which was fun only for those who could still efficiently make the 30 minute walk uphill to our hostel barracks.


The barracks

Our first week of class was dedicated to studying the mass balance of glaciers. Think of it as studying your bank account: you put a certain amount away each month but your balance is also possibly affected by taxes, fees, interest and your own withdrawals. A negative or positive balance down the road depends on all of these things.

Between a few days of lectures we squeezed in a day trip to a local glacier. It’s amazing to have such experiential learning less than a 45 minute snowmobile away (and that isn’t near to the closest glacier to town). We were on Scott Turnerbreen (breen = glacier), therefore Scott Turner must have been a real high-ranking coal miner back in the day to warrant having a glacier named after him. We dug our snowpits, figured out what recent weather events would have effected certain snow layers (post gale rain = ice, again), and explored an ice cave 15 m under the surface which is a melt water stream with the roof closed over. Really cool!


Scott Turnerbreen and region


Heading down into the ice cave


Looking up


Serious icicles

What was REALLY cool, or downright frosty, was a group hike yesterday up a mountain on the edge of town. The local reindeer were just fine on the plateau up top. I’m pretty sure our hike from yesterday is just a neighborhood stroll for the locals as well. The enthusiasm for all things Arctic, and active, is invigorating here. And I count myself lucky for having three more weeks to explore it!


A full 360 of the crew. Photo: V. Goel


Up on the plateau. The sticks are us. Photo: B. Lecavalier


Photo: B. Lecavalier


Some big, fresh tracks.. Photo: B. Lecavalier


Photo: B. Lecavalier

Stay warm everyone!

“We Nailed It”! Faith in field work, restored.


I am almost drawing a blank on how to start this. It has been over two years since an ice island field season has been successful, but as of Tuesday, 5 August 2014, we know that field operations on drifting masses of glacial ice is still possible!

The story should really start with a flashback to Sunday dinner a week and half ago, right after our first miss of this trip. It was jokingly put out there that the chief scientist was going to start whispering, “ice island, ice island” over the loudspeaker just to make me have small panic attacks and jump to get ready. The reality was not far off, as Tuesday morning I was awoken by the man himself, telling me to get my sleepy self to the wheelhouse ASAP to ‘come have a look’ at what was in front of us. Yup, there was an ice island, in all of its glory, that we didn’t know had drifted so far north due to our internet outages. We had still been planning on making our way back to the Greenland piece (things had been smoothed over internationally), but there is no way that we could pass up the weather that was presented to us. Bluebird skies, just a little wind, and zero fog. It was sunscreen-worthy conditions and we jumped to it.

Jonathan and Jean-Sebastian were trooper volunteers. They had already gone through the yes-no-maybe situations of the field ops over the past weeks. Both had also worked on their own projects well into the night and were expected to again the next night. But there was no hesitation to come and trek across the ice mass with me for the day.

Nine hours on the ice, another hour with the helicopter for photo work, and that was that! I could not be happier with what we accomplished on the ice. Timing estimates were exactly on target and all items on my list were miraculously checked off. High-precision GPS units recorded the ice island’s drift while we were on the ice, two tracking beacons were deployed to monitor drift after we left, a 1.5 km+ line of ice thickness and elevation data was collected with the radar system and another GPS, 13 melt stakes and 6 temperature loggers were installed over 500 and 200 m transects, and a camera was set up to monitor 1 set of melt stakes over time. To finish off with some excellent helicopter photo work was icing on the cake.

The most noteworthy accomplishment was the radar line. The surface was characterized by some serious ridges (easy for the system to navigate over on its two sets of xc skis) and troughs (not so easy). Melt ponds were splashed through and the skies seemed to target cryoconite holes (caused by sediment which melts into the ice due to low albedo and high solar energy retention).

In addition, samples were brought back for ‘the water people’ on board. The ship also conducted its rounds of science work – which included the collection of a serious photo-set of freeboard pictures, sonar mapping of the keel, and water sampling from both the zodiac and the ship for a variety of interests like carbon and sulphur fluxes and nutrient upwelling.

And that is that! The relief became greater and greater with each piece of equipment that worked. The smiles on everyone’s faces when we returned, including our own, is something to remember. The crew on board this year is fantastic, which is worth acknowledging again if I hadn’t before. The chief scientist, the captain and officers, the helicopter pilot, ship crew and other researchers are all included in this. The feeling was topped off when I came back from the photo work and my two on-ice team mates had waited for me before going to dinner, because that was a team activity too. I was even told it was ok to shower first (necessary after walking around in the sun in plastic floatation suits and pdfs for the day).

We are now transiting through the Northwest Passage, slowly and noisily. There is some serious sea-ice packed in here, which wasn’t helped by high winds from the east yesterday. We actually came into the passage in a gale warning. The winds made it impossible to do one last beacon deployment, but after Tuesday, I am not complaining about it!

What now? We have a week left to finish off the ship’s scheduled science and to make it to Kugluktuk, Nunavut. Apparently the ice conditions may change that departure point, but we’ll wait and see. As for field work – there are already rumblings about if and when we are going to hunt down this same piece as was worked on  this Tuesday, which I have named PII-K to mess a bit with the standard naming structure and to represent the Kane Basin where it was located. Now that we have the ‘taste of success’ we want to start planning for more!

I plan on writing one last entry – maybe a photo entry – on the other science ops on board. Everyone works incredibly hard and deserves recognition, and the variety of research is pretty interesting!

Rock on. And enjoy the pictures…

Out for a radar walk (p.s. the ice island was 150+ m thick!).

Out for a radar walk (p.s. the ice island was 150+ m thick!).

Science! GPS, beacons, melt stakes and temperature sensors.

Science! GPS, beacons, melt stakes and temperature sensors.

Our ice island, PII-K, with the Amundsen nudged up beside.

Our ice island, PII-K, with the Amundsen nudged up beside.

Taking it all in while waiting for our pick-up.

Taking it all in while waiting for our pick-up.

Hello ice, Hello Greenland

** Note, the following was written on Saturday, 2 August. We out-ran the internet providing satellites shortly after. **

Well, today’s edition of the ice chase will likely be described as comical after a few more hours have passed and the team regains its composure after the fresh hit of this morning.

We packed up last night in anticipation of being at our new ice island target (Petermann Ice Island-A-1-c), now in the Nares Strait between Canada and Greenland, at 9 am this morning. There was going to have to be a miracle change in weather for the helicopter to operate this morning, as we had been socked in with fog for the past week. Someone’s prayers worked, because I looked out my port-hole this morning, and after not too much neck craning, was able to spot a patch of sky! Incroyable!

The ship and science crews were rocking. The teamwork between the ship’s crew, the on-ice team, other scientists and the ‘decision makers’ is fantastic this year. There are others on board who are interested in samples from the ice island, as well as testing the surrounding waters and underwater mapping. It is great to have the whole ship involved because the boat is no longer idling just for you and everyone can benefit.

With everyone on-board readying for their own sampling, the on-ice team (The Ice Pac – our new team name!), left with the helicopter so that we could get a head start on work, as well as beat the rain that was following us.

The Canadian Ice Service has been a huge help, as they are every year, by providing me with the latest coordinates of these ice islands from the daily satellite imagery which they receive. I got the latest position about 20 minutes before take-off. This is important because the island had drifted east (not the way we would’ve liked!) since 31 July and when we were in the air we realized that it had moved suspiciously close to Greenland. Bright skies, light winds, no fog, warm working conditions… I thought that we were set! You can imagine the shock when we get the radio call that the ice island was within 12 miles of the Greenland shore and we were therefore unable to land as the ship does not have permits to operate in Greenland waters. Bam! That was it.

The good news is that we did some great photo work by flying at set altitudes and flight patterns. paths. Like the photo work we did on Saturday, this can lead to some 3D modeling (photogrammetry), and is one positive to take away from today.

We’re currently headed to our northernmost point for the cruise. It won’t be as high as we had hoped, as the ice bridge between Ellesmere Island (Canada) and Greenland is breaking apart and making navigation tricky. The ice flushing out of this region after the break may be chasing us soon enough!

So we will turn a 180 at that point and come back down, and hopefully there is still some sun and the perfect winds, pushing this morning’s target just a pinch west…

Over and out!


The scenery is always worth the flight

So close to PII-A-1-c!